Clean-up technologies need to be regulated to secure benefit to the environment and society

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Ocean Plastic Removal Device. Photo by Felton Davis

Cleaning Up without Messing Up: Maximizing the Benefits of Plastic Clean-Up Technologies through New Regulatory Approaches.

The plastic pollution crisis has triggered the development of numerous clean-up technologies to remove litter from the environment. While there may be circumstances where they are appropriate, their implementation can have unintended negative consequences and be cost-inefficient. A webinar series brought together a diversity of stakeholders to discuss the role of clean-up technologies in reducing plastic pollution. The panelists identified two key messages that should be given attention in the upcoming international plastics treaty: 1) regulation of plastic clean-up technologies is needed to ensure a net-benefit for the environment and affected communities, and 2) responsible implementation of plastic clean-up technologies can result in co-benefits to society.


Jannike Falk-Andersson*1; Idun Rognerud1; Hannah De Frond2,3; Giulia Leone4,5,6,7; Rachel Karasik8; Zoie Diana9; Hanna Dijkstra10; Justine Ammendolia11,12; Marcus Eriksen13; Ria Utz14, 15; Tony R. Walker11; Kathinka Fürst1

Affiliations: 1Norwegian Institute for Water Research; 2University of Toronto Trash Team; 3Ocean Conservancy; 4Ghent University, Research Group Aquatic Ecology; 5Flanders Marine Institute, (VLIZ), InnovOcean Site; 6Research Institute for Nature and Forest, Aquatic Management; 7Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO); 8Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability, Duke University; 9Duke University, Division of Marine Science and Conservation, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University Marine Laboratory, Duke University; 9Integrated Toxicology and Environmental Health, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University; 10Institute for Environmental Studies, Vrije Universiteit; 11School for Resource and Environmental Studies, Dalhousie University; 12Faculty of Graduate Studies, Dalhousie University; 13The 5 Gyres Institute; 14Sciences Po Paris; 15University of California, Berkeley.


  • Several risks of clean-up technologies were identified, including damage to ecosystems, low cost-efficiency, and lack of proper disposal opportunities.
  • Potential benefits include removal of litter from the environment, data collection on pollution levels and sources, increased awareness, and economic opportunities.
  • Environmental impact analysis and life cycle analysis should be developed and implemented to evaluate the net-benefit of clean-up technologies and alternatives.
  • Evaluation of both the risks and benefits of clean-up technologies should be included in the plastics treaty to secure their net-benefit to the environment and society.

“We argue that to maximize co-benefits and mitigate potential negative consequences, the role of plastic clean-up technologies in reducing plastic pollution should be given careful attention in the upcoming international treaty”


Numerous clean-up technologies have been developed to remove litter that has ended up in the environment. The most famous clean-up technology is “The Ocean Cleanup” where a huge net is pulled by two vessels across the ocean surface to capture litter.

This paper argues for inclusion of language and guidance in the negotiations towards a global plastics treaty to ensure the technology is employed in an environmentally sound manner. Evaluations should be conducted before and during deployment, and should also identify potential added value in terms of monitoring, research, and outreach.

Mitigating potential negative impacts

Pre-deployment feasibility studies, applying for example environmental impact assessments or life cycle analysis, should be conducted to evaluate potential negative environmental impacts and implementation costs. These should be site specific and account for the local litter densities, the ecology and socio-economic capacity.

The cost is expected to increase with depth, and with decreasing litter density. Upscaling may affect the cost-benefit of clean-up technology employment, including environmental costs.

Employment of clean-up technologies may have negative impacts on ecosystems through unintended by-catch of organisms, damage to habitat and through malfunctioning of the technology (e.g. fuel spills). These may be mitigated through technological innovation or careful consideration of when and where the technology is employed.

Evaluation and regulations

Socio-economic concerns should also be evaluated, with some communities not having the appropriate human or financial resources to operate and maintain such technologies. Manual cleaning may in some cases be more cost-efficient due to local ecological and social conditions.

The cost-effectiveness of clean-up technologies, their maintenance and management over time, and alternative solutions, including no action, should also be evaluated. The opportunities to safely dispose of recovered plastic should be identified and the feasibility and cost of the logistics related to waste management, including the possibility and opportunities for recycling, evaluated. ‘

There is a need to develop and standardize regulatory requirements for a holistic pre-deployment evaluation of clean-up technologies.

Monitoring and reporting

During deployment the cost-efficiency of the clean-up technology should be documented, including reporting of catch-efficiency, capital, and maintenance costs. This will be affected by several factors, such as litter density, by-catch rates, the composition of the by-catch, and logistical constrains in the area of operation.

There is a need to harmonize efforts to allow comparisons of catch and by-catch rates across technologies and with manual cleaning. This information could be used in pre-deployment assessments, during implementation and for monitoring purposes.

There is a need to define bycatch limits, regulate how and when plastic clean-up technologies could be implemented, and require that the technology should be designed to minimize bycatch. Compliance in reporting of data correctly could be secured through independent observers or using remote electronic monitoring.

Circular solutions

Currently, there are few end-of-life solutions for recovered plastics that are environmentally and economically sustainable. It is important that the destiny of the litter recovered is documented and that there is full transparency and critical evaluations of the waste solutions applied.

To secure viable, circular economy solutions, it is recommended that business models are developed in parallel with development of the clean-up technology. Additional co-benefits of employing clean-up technology is to collect data on the amount and composition of litter and by-catch for monitoring and research using harmonized protocols.

Implementation of outreach programs can engage different groups in clean-ups, preventive measures, and critical thinking on solutions to the plastic pollution problem.

The authors recommend development and implementation of guidelines and regulations to ensure the benefits and minimize potential negative effects of implementation of clean-up technologies. To secure their net-benefit to the environment and society, these should be included in the plastics treaty.

“Technological solutions have cross-sector enthusiasm and support and can contribute positively to reducing plastic pollution”

The full article is available here.

IKHAPP in collaboration with Duke university held two webinars on this topic in 2022. Read more: Cleaning Up Without Messing Up: The need for a new knowledge base to inform the utilization of marine litter clean up technologies